Greek Orthodox Christian residents of Tarpon Springs, Florida gathered at St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral for Easter services last Sunday under the watchful eye of law enforcement— the bomb squad to be exact.
It’s a post-9/11 world.
Tarpon Springs police officers and the Pinellas County sheriff’s deputies patrolled the vicinity of the church for any signs of so-called Greek bombs — explosive devices that in past years have been detonated illegally during the Greek Orthodox Easter celebration. The most destructive one exploded in 2012 on the roof of a downtown building, shattering windows and blowing doors off their hinges.
On Sunday, in addition to the presence of uniformed officers on the streets, a Pinellas Sheriff’s Office helicopter hovered over nearby buildings for signs of explosives or would-be perpetrators.
Tarpon Springs police Capt. Jeffrey Young said the department received reports of “one or two” bombs exploding a few blocks from the church, but no damage was reported.
“Nothing went off like in years past,” Young said. “In that regard, the operation plan was successful in keeping that type of destructive behavior away.”
When the clock tolls midnight on Easter morning, homemade bombs traditionally explode along the Dodecanese Boulevard riverfront in this quant Greek sponge fishing village on Florida’s Gulf Coast. Explosions shake buildings and break windows on Athens Street. Back in the neighborhoods, teenage boys toss bombs and run from the cops. It’s a rite of passage that happens to be a felony.
Bomb explosions during Easter season have been part of Tarpon Springs for generations. It’s a custom that goes back to where so many of the town’s 3,000 Greek American residents trace their roots: the Dodecanese islands of Kalymnos, Symi and Halki close to the Turkish coast. There, Easter celebrants fling dynamite from mountain cliffs and occasionally blow themselves up in the process. It’s a tradition celebrated on many Greek islands and dates to the Ottoman occupation.
The so-called Easter bomb is typically made from shredded newspaper, twine, duct tape and powder easily purchased in the neighborhood gun shop. There’s more to it, of course. Just know the creation produces an impressive explosion. Even so, the ear blast is never enough for the most competitive bombmakers.
Cpl. Scott Brockew, a Tarpon Springs police detective and Pinellas County’s only bomb technician, once confiscated a homemade explosive about the size of a watermelon, according to a story in Tampa Bay.com
“Somebody was driving around with it in the trunk of his car,” he said recently. “It contained 12 pounds of black powder. We took it to a remote spot and exploded it. From 300 yards away you felt the concussion in your chest. It left a 4-foot crater in the ground. Can you imagine if it went off in a crowd?”
Some might argue that Easter bombs are as much a part of Greek culture as bouzouki music. Others, mostly people in law enforcement, would say that the occasional explosion in the downtown shopping district stopped being a quaint but noisy custom sometime after Sept. 11.
“It’s a collision of folk customs with the American legal system,” says Tina Bucuvalas, a Tarpon Springs folklorist who has sometimes been awakened by distant explosions early Easter morning. She never stops trying to understand the tradition of Easter bombs.
“Don’t even call them bombs,” an elderly Greek man explained to her recently in a casual conversation on the sponge docks. “Bombs are what al-Qaida makes in Afghanistan and Iraq. People here make their own firecrackers. You should call them firecrackers.”
He did not reveal his name, of course, another custom when the subject of Easter bombs arises.
“Americans celebrate the Fourth of July with fireworks,” he went on. “In Tarpon Springs, we celebrate the fact that Christ has risen from the dead with our own fireworks. It’s the happiest day of the year.”
No kid, he grew up in Kalymnos and remembered stealing dynamite and building bombs with the powder as a teen. He carried his bombs to the mountaintop overlooking town, waited for midnight, ignited the fuse and heaved with all his strength. The explosion turned night into day, shook the mountain, shook the town below.
“My father was in church at the time,” the retired gray-haired bomber told Bucuvalas. “He later told me that my bomb was so loud it made the old women weep.”
By tradition he passed on his Easter bombmaking skills to his American-born son. The son, now married with his own children, tells people the custom will end with him.
During the 1988 Easter season, a 20-year-old man waited too long to throw a bomb on Hope Street. The explosion broke his arm.
In 1991, police arrested a 14-year-old boy in possession of a 1-pound bomb.
In 1994, an 18-year-old was arrested for having a bomb.
Easter, 1996: A teenager was stopped driving on Dodecanese Boulevard because his passenger, a small child, wasn’t properly restrained. The driver was arrested after two bombs were discovered inside his car. Later that night, police found a bag containing seven bombs on the sponge docks.
In 1997, a powerful bomb rocked Athens Street and did $3,000 damage to the National Bakery and the Greek Coffee Shop. The following Easter a bomb went off in the alley behind the famous Zorba’s Greek Taverna. The front window shattered, whiskey bottles flew off the shelves and a $1,500 neon sign had to be replaced.
In 2000, after an enormous blast broke 13 windows along Athens Street, police arrested two 18-year-old boys. That Easter another bomb shattered the window at Paul’s Shrimp House on Live Oak Street. On Athens Street, a bomb blew the bumper off a parked car and damaged the radiator.
In 2009, an altar boy was arrested for having a bomb.
In 2010 there was that unauthorized fireworks show that originated on the roof of a church building. During the Easter Eve church service at St. Nicholas Cathedral, an illicit fireworks show, triggered by a remote control device, began on the roof of the 70-year-old structure and went on for 11 minutes.
Last Easter, fearing the worst, Tarpon Springs police Chief Bob Kochen requested helicopter help from the Pinellas County Sheriff’s Office. Hovering over the cathedral, the pilot saw a suspicious package on top of the church kindergarten. It turned out to be a box containing a remote control device apparently intended to set off another fireworks show.
On the Greek orthodox religion’s holiest night, the police chief ordered the church, filled with about a thousand worshipers, evacuated. Then, to the chagrin of many in the congregation, the Tampa Bay Regional Bomb Squad filed through the empty church with specially trained dogs.
The dogs sniffed out no bombs and worshipers returned to their pews. From the church courtyard, police heard the sporadic explosions of Easter bombs in the distance.
Officer Barbara Templeton spent her first Greek Easter 25 years ago in a squad car. “Somebody rolled a bomb under me,” she said. “When it went off it was so loud I thought I’d lost my hearing.” Her boss sent her to the emergency room.
“At the time I was one of the few women on the force,” said Templeton, now a captain. “My first Easter and I had to go to the hospital. It was embarrassing.”
The police have their customs, too. Every spring for at least a half century, the police chief has written a letter to the pastor of St. Nicholas asking for help keeping the city quiet. On March 15, Kochen sent his annual message to the parish priest and the Parish Council.
“In the interest of safety,” the police chief wrote, “I am respectfully asking that the Parish Council partner with the police department to openly denounce the use of fireworks and homemade bombs…”
Devout Greek Orthodox Christians in Tarpon Springs shun meat and alcohol during Lent. So determined are they to honor their savior’s sacrifice that they avoid dairy products, cooking oil and even sex. But not the bombs.
“Bang! It’s a big celebration. Christ has tramped down death… It’s a wonderful moment,” said one anonymous member of the community.